Sakurada gate, Imperial Palace park, Tokyo
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Tokyo Report: Imperial Palace Bridges

Of graceful, but cold stone bridges and gentle human ones

By Bill Moore

To my great disappointment, by the time I arrived at Tokyo's Imperial Palace, the gates were being closed. Thankfully, Mister Nishigawa more than redeemed the trip for me.

After having been to Toyota's Higashi-Fuji proving grounds earlier in the day, I had a couple hours to spend before going to dinner with our hosts and my fellow members of the press. Since the famed Imperial Palace was just a fifteen minute walk away from the hotel, which overlooks the Tokyo train station, I decided take my video and digital still cameras and visit the site.

The walk takes you under the train tracks over which pass bullet trains and local commuter trains, and beside towering glass and steel skyscrapers belonging to various international banks and transnational corporations.

I catch my first glimpse of the Kokyogaien park and the Hibiya moat that surrounds it and suddenly I am trust back in time -- or so it seems, until I discover that even Tokyo has its share of homeless who sleep in the park with the ever-present ravens whose caw-caw-caw seems to drown out the nearby din of traffic.

My first glimpse of the palace grounds itself is some 500 meters or more to my right, it's an ancient Japanese structure standing above yet another moat, this on the Kikyo moat. From the line of parked tour buses, I suspect I've discovered the entrance to the Palace grounds, but as I walk up, masses of tourists are pouring out of the Kikyo gate and no one is going in. My suspicion that I've arrived too late is confirmed by a guard who tells me in broken English that no one is allowed in now. I will have to content myself with talking photos and video from the outside of the grounds.

As luck would have it, I do capture on video a changing of the guards at the Sei gate to the south, which overlooks the magnificent Nijubashi bridge and Fushimi Yagura complex on the hill behind it.

With the sun starting to set I walk along the Nijubashi moat where other amateur photographers are also trying to capture the scene. A single artist is sketching the bridges of the Sei gate.

It is here that I meet Mister Nishigawa, a small, frail Japanese gentleman in a windbreaker and bucket hat. As I walk past, he asks me in English, what country am I from.

"America," I call out.

His face lights up and before I know it, I find myself engaged in an animated conversation. He pulls out a well-used map of the United States and asks me to indicate my home state.

"Nebraska," I respond, pointing to the center of his map. It is not one with which he is familiar. I tell him that this is where the second wealthiest man in America -- Warren Buffet -- lives, and he seems to recognize the name.

With obvious admiration, he exclaims how big America is. He notes that all of Japan is only about the size of one state, California. He points to Alaska on his map, asking how big it is. On the map is isn't much bigger than Wyoming. I explain that his map isn't to scale. That Alaska is much bigger, maybe twice the size of Texas. His eyes open wide with amazement.

"Ah so." he intones.

I ask him where he has learned English, and he tells me he and his wife have been studying if off the radio. It's my turn to be amazed. It is his aim, he continues, to take a trip next year to see the Midnight sun, perhaps in Scandinavia. I tell him that he could also do it in Alaska, which is much closer to Japan. I also recommend he consider Iceland, as well.

He is very appreciative. Clearly now a pensioner, I try to imagine what he once did for a living. I imagine such a gentle, polite, inquisitive man being a artisan, a tea grower, a fisherman. I do learn that his name, Nishigawa, means "north" (nishi) "river" (gawa). He says it is a very common name in Japan.

Curiously and totally off topic, he remarks that life is getting harder in Japan. The gap between the rich and the middle class is widening, a phenomenon that appears to be happening everywhere on the planet. I find myself not wanting to break off our conversation; finding myself strangely drawn to this simple, honest man, whom I will, in all likelihood, never meet again; a disappointment that troubles me. Making friends this easily just doesn't happen in our world, especially across such distinctly different cultures.

I give him my business card, which he studies with deliberation and appreciation. I explain that I publish an Internet "magazine" about electric cars. Again he nods with seeming recognition, but there is a puzzlement in his eyes, just as I'd find with most Americans.

I ask his permission to take his picture. He agrees and I take two. One of him alone and one with the two of us together [see in slideshow below]. I tell him it is time for me to go, but that I have so much enjoyed our conversation. With characteristic politeness he assures me that he has learned much and he is very grateful. We shake hands, bow slightly and say our goodbyes.

That brief, perhaps fifteen minute dialogue turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and memorable parts of a very memorable trip to Japan as a guest of Toyota. I would see, feel and taste many new things on this journey, but my interlude with Mr. Nishigawa on the banks of the Nijubashi moat at the base of the stone walls of the Imperial Palace will stay with me for the rest of my life.

On reflection now, there seems to be three Japans: the high-tech, no-nonsense one run by nameless businessmen in charcoal gray suits, white dress shirts and silk ties; the historic one of timbered castles, temples and bronze samurai illustrated by the stature of Kusunoki Masashige in Kokyogaien park; and the gentle, artistic, cultured one epitomized by Nishigawa-san.

I find all three intriguing, but where the former two seem remote and distant, like the gray stone and chilly moats that surround the Imperial Palace, the latter puts a warm, compelling human face on the cultural divide that separates us from each other. We can bridge the moat when each respects and is willing to learn from the other.

Domo arigato, Nishigawa-san.

Times Article Viewed: 16282
Published: 12-Nov-2007


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